Kettle Moraine's New Fane trails are great for a quick spring hike
Trails in forest's Northern Unit near Kewaskum have 4 loops
Nearly 20,000 years ago, an epic ice battle went down in southeastern Wisconsin.
In an area running from Walworth County in the south to Kewaunee County on Lake Michigan, two large glacial sheets collided, leaving behind a diverse, hilly landscape of water-filled kettles, moraine mounds, conical kames and ridged eskers. It is these glacial remnants that give the sprawling, 52,000-acre Kettle Moraine State Forest its name, and it's also these features that make for some great hiking.
The forest is broken into two units: the Northern Unit, with headquarters in Campbellsport, and the Southern Unit, with headquarters in Eagle. Each has more than 100 miles of trails to explore, including sections of the 1,200-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
While the Ice Age Trail is one of my favorite trails in Wisconsin, when I'm looking for a quick day hike I like to trek on looped systems so I'm not hiking the same path at any point. In the Northern Unit, the New Fane trail system is the closest looped system to Milwaukee and offers four hiking loops and four mountain biking loops for exploration.
The trails are use-specific, which means hiking is not allowed on the bike trails and biking is not allowed on the hiking trails. They do cross each other at a number of points, however, so be aware of other hikers and bikers.
The hiking trails are relatively short, with loops ranging from less than 1 mile to just over 3 miles, for a total of 7.7 miles. The longest provides a short connector trail that links the system to the Ice Age trail, providing for a longer out-and-back hike.
Pets are allowed on the hiking trails as long they are on a leash no longer than 8 feet. It's important to keep dogs on a leash even if you're off-trail, since it is bird nesting season in Wisconsin through mid-July.
Route: Starting from the parking lot, follow the wide, grassy path to the east toward a mixed hardwood forest. Continue following the purple signs to hike the longest loop, or cut back along the green and brown loops for a shorter hike.
As the trail enters the woods, you'll catch glimpses of farmland to the east, and if the wind is blowing the right (or wrong) way, whiffs of Bessie's byproducts.
Soon enough the farmland is obscured by the trees again as the trail dips and rises through the woods toward a small pine plantation.
After a switchback route through the towering pines, the trail passes the Ice Age connector and a small pond before finishing back at the trailhead.
One of the best things about this trail system, especially the longest loop, is that it provides a great overview of all the Kettle Moraine's diverse landscapes — ridges and hills, mixed hardwoods, pine plantations, wetlands — in a compact set of trails easily tackled in about an hour.
Plus, the trails seem to be more off-the-radar for hikers than more popular systems like the Zillmer and Greenbush trails to the north. I had them all to myself for nearly two hours on a recent weekday morning.
Difficulty level: Easy to moderate. The trails wind up and down a series of small hills that will get your heart rate going, but through the pine plantation, they're relatively flat.
When to go: Spring is a great time for a hike. The weather is cooler, the bugs are almost nonexistent, and the trees and flowers are beginning to bloom. When I hiked the trails recently, the trees were mostly still bare, but they had started to bud and the grass had already greened.
In spring the trails are also usually too muddy for mountain biking, so you don't have to worry about bikers zipping across your path.
Fun fact: The trail system gets its name from the nearby unincorporated town of New Fane, which was named by 19th-century settlers who came from Newfane, N.Y.
While you're there: The Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive, a 115-mile route through six counties, traverses the entire length of the state forest's Northern Unit. The winding drive, marked by green acorn signs, is beautiful any time of year.
In West Bend, Lizard Mound County Park is home to 28 effigy mounds, one of the best collections of mounds outside of Iowa. Look for the park's namesake, a giant lizard-shaped mound, at the property's southern edge.
Getting there: The New Fane trail system is on County Line Drive just east of the Kettle Moraine Drive near Kewaskum, about 50 miles north of Milwaukee.
Note that if you're coming from Milwaukee, Highway 28 in Kewaskum is closed, so you'll need to get off Highway 45 at County Highway H and follow that to Kettle Moraine Drive.
More information: For more on the New Fane trails, seednr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/kmn/trails.html.
For more on the Kettle Moraine State Forest-Northern Unit, call (262) 626-2116 or see dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/kmn.
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